It’s so easy for doctors to betray their calling to ‘first, do no harm’

Luminal was used by doctors in the Nazi 'children's euthanasia' programme (AP)

Having written about a great pro-life doctor – Jerome Lejeune – in my last blog, I see that Dr Peter Saunders, on his Christian Medical Comment blog, also writes about the medical profession this week. This is because Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day, in which millions of Jews and others killed during the Third Reich are remembered in services around the country.

Dr Saunders reminds us that the Holocaust was not just the dirty work of the SS or the Gestapo as we might like to think. In many ways it was the German medical fraternity who softened up the public (and thus the death squads) for their moral dereliction by introducing the idea of “life not worthy of life.” As Dr Saunders points out, “What ended in the 1940s in the gas chambers…had much more humble beginnings in the 1930s in nursing homes, geriatric hospitals and psychiatric institutions all over Germany.”

When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, six per cent of doctors were already enrolled as members of the Nazi Physicians League. That same year a leading German medical journal, Deutsches Arzteblatt, wrote in a sinister way of “protecting the German nation from biogenetic degeneration.” At first this meant enforced sterilisation of the “degenerate”; 300,000 such operations were carried out within four years. In 1939 this brutal eugenic programme had morphed into something worse; the killing of the weak and the vulnerable had begun. By the end of the war some 6,000 children had been put to death in hospital by injection or deliberate starvation. Nurses would have been involved here.

Adult euthanasia began in September 1939, the same month that the War started; targeted patients were gassed and then incinerated at certain institutions. In 1941, when this process had been completed, the staff involved – the nurses, doctors and other personnel – were redeployed to work in the death camps. Saunders writes: “Throughout this process doctors were involved from the earliest stage in reporting, selection, authorisation, execution, certification and research. They were not ordered, but rather empowered to participate.” This last detail is the most shocking; medics were not coerced to their deadly work. As historian Michael Burleigh indicates in his book Death and Deliverance, they were free to refuse, without penalties or setbacks in their career. Few did so; most had long been desensitised to their deeply unethical behaviour, forgetting the basic tenet of the ancient Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist at Nuremberg, wrote a report in 1949 describing the process of accommodation that doctors made with their consciences: “”It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived… Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.”

Today euthanasia is back on the political agenda in this country. Events like the Holocaust Memorial Day and thinking of the inspiring example set by a doctor such as the late Professor Lejeune should remind us not to acquiesce with it in silence – as did too many German doctors in the 1930s.